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The Reading Crisis

n + 1 has an article up about "The Reading Crisis." (Link goes to the n + 1 main page since they don’t seem to have a permalink to the article.) I like n + 1, but I think I need a little more from them than this. Basically, the article (I guess it’s written by "The Editors") is bemoaning the fact that our so-called reading crisis now makes it excusable for authors to hawk their books in all manner of creative (sometimes demeaning) ways.

A real debate could be had about all these things. Instead we get the “reading crisis.” Under conditions of the reading crisis, everything a writer does, no matter how self-serving and reprehensible, becomes a blow in the service of literature. An arbiter of a “revolution” in reading features games, accordionists, and contests at his public events. A best-selling author sends out emails asking acquaintances to buy his new book before it slips off the Times top-seller list—because without these sales-markers, classic works can disappear. A blogger-author roams bookstores putting advertisements in books reminiscent of her own: “If you liked this, you’ll love The Tattle-Tale.” And these figures are held up as models of the hopeful signs for a renaissance in reading.

Well, okay, I guess it’s fair to complain about this, but I don’t see The Editors offering any solutions. What should authors do? Just manfully abide like good stoics and hope their books sell?

And also, author self-whoring isn’t exactly new. I don’t think you can ascribe it tall o a changed climate brought on by a decline in general reading. No, no, the industry has been moving toward this for some time now.

Blame the industry, the authors, or just plain old crass commercialism, but sales-generating acrobatics on the part of authors are now expected by publishers. Not to mention that many authors, after they discover that their publishers will give their book virtually no attention, instead lavishing hundreds of thousands on a few lead titles, practically beg for the chance to whore themselves out.

I guess my point is you can blame authors for doing this if you what, but what the hell else are they supposed to do? And do we really need a whole editorial lambasting authors for bowing to market forces? Not to mention, didn’t Benjamin Kunkel just do a huge PR blitz for his book? Oh, but articles in the Times and The New Yorker are part of the dignified approach to bookselling. The good old genteel tradition of back slapping and goodoldboy networks.

I’ve got nothing again people who want to critize the sorts of things authors are forced to do to sell their books. I agree, it’s screwed up. But let’s try to realize that it’s not completely the author’s fault. And if you think this is a bad state of affairs, then how about telling us what should be done about it?

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14 comments to The Reading Crisis

  • ed

    Looks like we’re smoking the same ganja. :)

  • I’d have more respect for Kunkel without all the doe-eyed come-do-me publicity photos that seem to accompany media pieces on/by him.

  • Dickens and Twain did whatever they could do to publicize their works why should today’s authors be castigated for doing the same thing.

  • I’m not sure how a reading crisis and writers marketing themselves are related. How else do we get hear about new books? New writers? Writers have to compete in a marketplace where everything else is vying for attention. And it certainly seems better than having a patron who might dictate what you can or cannot publish.

  • And honestly, doesn’t the pull-out-all-stops marketing methods apply to everything sold these days? As long as I’m not getting spammed by authors (I am by bankers, mortgage companies, petroleum and drug companies)which these days is about the lowest you can go, I say more power to ‘em.


    We’re still technically on vacation so, really, nothing to see here. But this caught our eye and was too entertaining not to share. Since it isn’t available online, we painstakingly retype TLS’ marvelous NB column from the most recent issue:Norman


    We’re still technically on vacation so, really, nothing to see here. But this caught our eye and was too entertaining not to share. Since it isn’t available online, we painstakingly retype TLS’ marvelous NB column from the most recent issue:Norman


    We’re still technically on vacation so, really, nothing to see here. But this caught our eye and was too entertaining not to share. Since it isn’t available online, we painstakingly retype TLS’ marvelous NB column from the most recent issue:Norman

  • And if you think this is a bad state of affairs, then how about telling us what should be done about it?
    Once again, one can only refer the author of these remarks to the journal itself, specifically issue #2. There seems this odd sort of delay at work, wherein the blogly critics of this magazine’s third issue have suddenly decided to raise questions already dealt with in the second. Not that there isn’t more than ample substance in #3 of course…
    In the meantime, why stand in the way of a good thing? (Less importantly, why lend credence to impressivly deranged, bizarre chip-on-the-shoulder readings elsewhere?)
    Really, why? Is it jealousy? Must the Blogs be continuously fed and appeased? Speaking more abstractly, of course.
    Though, to be unecessarily blunt, perhaps you could stand to think a bit more critically here, about the place you may occupy–about the ways you (or rather litblogs in general) cannot fail to be implicated in the context of their actual critiques.
    And by “critiques” I mean the ones in the actual magazine, and in print. In issue #2, in this case.

  • Matt,
    Stop yourself. You’re really not doing yourself any good with these remarks.
    I’m all for intelligent comments, but this isn’t it. So you’re saying that I can’t criticize a poorly argued editorial because there was a previous article in a prior issue of n + 1 that dealt with the same topic? Matt . . . try making some fucking sense.
    Obviously you’re a real big fan of n + 1. Good for you. Why don’t you take the time you’re wasting here and put it into a nice big fan letter. Maybe if you’re really good about it Kunkel himself will come over and let you . . .

  • Very classy Scott…
    The advice on “what is good for me” is certainly appreciated, but there’s something I forgot to say:
    It occurs to me that if by some chance you actually do read the magazine (you now say you’ve read from it–that wouldn’t be just the online material by any chance now would it?)…and assuming you aren’t just trying to suck up to some other litblogger or other…then, sadly enough, these two posts are just plain philistine.
    How? Well if I must begin to spell it out:
    By failing to recognize how this article, in its serious tone, is entirely of a piece with that ongoing critique of ‘Eggers’ you now say you’ve read. Indeed, by failing to recognize how you yourself repeat the ‘Eggers’ mentality by so latching onto Kunkel as a stand-in for n+1 in general, as a cheap hook by which to attack something truly excellent and fragile.
    I didn’t want to think that was the case, but now it seems entirely more likely.
    Oh, and I should try making some fucking sense? Should I try finding a cheap angle to get my Eggers-like gossipy bit of facile take-down litblog fame?
    Look, this is a fantastic, highly original, highly intelligent magazine. Don’t take my word for it; subscribe. (They could abandon some of the more cutesy online stuff, sure.) There are good and complex claims worth criticizing and engaging with in that article; I don’t see it here.
    Not that it’s germane in the slightest to even mention, but I’m no huge fan of Kunkel. His writing by itself is by no means representative of n+1, in any case. I’ll simply repeat the question: why use philistine attacks on him as grounds to take gratuitous swipes at a fragile thing? (And why lend credence to others less careful and even more philistine?)
    If, on the other hand, you are sincere in your questions about the article, then you should be delighted to hear that they have already been substantially addressed in previous issues, am I wrong?
    The offer to share my copy still stands.

  • To be fair, that bit you cite from the article is also a bit of a cheap shot at blogger-authors.
    These divisions needn’t prove decisive, however. The fact that some bloggers seem inclined to up the ante of snark rather than self-critically reflect doesn’t exactly help, of course.
    Do you disagree that most blog-books are over-hyped crap, Scott? The article isn’t ruling out the possibility of something good; merely describing the climate we are in. The work of description is of course hardly important; on the contrary.

  • All right. Now you are making some sense. Thank you.
    “Read from the magazine” = I buy them and hold them in my pretty little hands, but I don’t read them cover to cover.
    I didn’t take the “Reading Crisis” article as part of their ongoing takedown of Eggers. Really, I thought that was satisfactorily accomplished in Issue 1.
    I likened Kunkel to Eggers because they are both the most highly publicized members of their respective journals/cliques. I imagine that n + 1′s ongoing takedown of Eggers has more than a little to do with Kunkel’s interest in being the new Eggers. As such, it think it’s fair to use Kunkel to stand in for n + 1 just as most of us use Eggers to stand in for McSweeney’s.
    Bottom line: Like anything else on this blog, n + 1 is not sacred. I’ve praised n + 1 and I’ve criticized it. I’m not trying to take it down any more than you are. I couldn’t. I thought it was a poor editorial, so I said so. I don’t really think, at this point, we need anyone to point out that authors are going to extreme efforts to get their readers. Beyond that, we disagree over whether it’s good or bad: I think it’s ok and somewhat forced on the authors, they think otherwise. We’re diagreeing. No one is taking down anyone.

  • As such, it think it’s fair to use Kunkel to stand in for n + 1 just as most of us use Eggers to stand in for McSweeney’s.
    Except of course that n+1 (the magazine, not Kunkel’s book) has four outstanding editors, while McSweeney’s has one shitty one.
    Ok, I’m done fawning now. Glad to hear you aren’t at all interested in facile take-downs. Surely it reflects better on us generally, to actively distance ourselves from those.

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